I was still a child myself when I saw my sister being born. The midwife was late, and Dad called me in to fetch towels and a bowl of warm water. My mother was lying on the bed, their bed. She had been through childbirth four times before and would do it twice more—I was one of seven children. “Good stock and good breeding,” others said. Personally I hated the big family because it meant sharing more of the little food we had.
(I'm on the left; Mum in red shirt)
It was Devon, England, and we were living in a small village after getting kicked out of a farmhouse because my father was caught stealing potatoes. We had to get used to living right next door to others. My mother often spent the rent money, so we all had a pretty good idea of how to hide when someone was at the door. Mum and I would get the kids behind the sofa, and then I would make sure the youngest came upstairs with me in case of any crying.
It was the responsibility of the oldest girl—me—to made sure that the house was as clean as possible, considering there were seven children running around, a father who never took off his boots, and a mother who frankly had no idea what cleanliness really meant. My mother has mild learning disabilities, but this fact was not brought out until I was much older—she just seemed weak for allowing my father to push her around. Mealtimes were simple; it was often a question of what was left in the pantry or freezer. We always had enough potatoes, and potato cakes were the first thing I learned to cook for the whole family—mashed with egg and cheese and shallow-fried. But on the weekends when Dad got paid, Mum could make a roast dinner with homemade apple pie, although the vegetables were overcooked, and the smell of cabbage filled the house. My mother never threw out the lard, using it over and over for at least a month. As the family got too big to sit around the table, my father would take his meals in front of the TV.
I was the one who got into trouble, should anything be out of line when my father returned from work. His demands were consistent: Put the kettle on; get tea on the table; bring another cup of tea later when he had chosen the TV channels for the evening. I often got a slap across the head, verbal put-downs, and occasionally the belt when he lost his temper. One night when I was bringing home a bottle of vinegar for fish and chips, I tripped and dropped it. I starred at the damage on the pavement for a long time, knowing what awaited me behind the front door.
At 17, many people thought I was the mother of my youngest sister. I got used to it, and accustomed to the lack of any real affection from my mother. She was trying her best but lacked the conversational and emotional sharing with any child—unable to hug or say “I love you.” As I grew up, my mother seemed jealous of me and far more comfortable with my younger sisters. Maybe they were less judgmental, more accepting of the situation. I always wanted more and later expressed how I would not end up in a relationship like hers with such a temperamental husband.
I loved dancing, but when I had a night off, I had to endure my father picking me up at the disco, flirting with my friends and listening to his sexist, ignorant remarks. I finally left home and didn’t find out until many years later—in fact, at my father’s funeral—that my sisters had been angry with me for abandoning them. Knowing what I know now, and learning the art of forgiveness, I call my mum every week to find out how she is. In her own way, I do believe she loves us all. She was never really taught how to express it. But it’s there.
Shirley Beth Newbery, the founder of infusionarts, performs and directs theater in New York City and the United Kingdom. Her focus is on East Africa, where she helps fund education, food and clothing for children.
4 medium-sized potatoes, diced (with or without skins)
2 T. butter, softened
1 chopped onion
pinch of salt and pepper
flour for dredging
vegetable oil for frying
optional: 4 additional eggs
Place potatoes in a pot of boiling water and cook until tender.
Drain and mash with 2 T. butter and 2 eggs.
Cook onions in a small amount of water until softened.
Mix onions, salt and pepper with potato mixture.
Form mixture into small, thick pancakes and dredge in flour.
Heat oil and shallow-fry cakes, turning once, until browned.
Optional: These are delicious with a fried egg on top.